It’s winter; the crystal white snow that fell last night has already been trampled into the street, turning it a muddy brown with every heavy footstep.
Men appear to be on their way to work, in twos, threes, solo employees, wrapped up against the cold. One man carries a red bucket, filled to the brim with something he is probably afraid of losing by slipping in the slush. Another man is attempting to clear a path. All are dwarfed by the industrial giants surrounding them. The men are all actively moving. The Larkin Coal Company dominates the scene but, in comparison, all seems quite still there, there are the trucks full of coal leaving the scene off to the left, and the grabber appears to be unmanned. The buildings appear empty; no one going in, and no one coming out.
Most movement seems to be towards the river, the East River, for this is New York. Williamsburg to be exact. The belching smoke from the factories on the other side of the river push their pollutants through the deep snow-filled clouds hanging over the river. There is work available in these factories, but what this image tells us is that there is very little work available elsewhere. This is the 1930s and the Great Depression has its grip on this once thriving metropolis.
Maurice Kish, a Russian born, American artist, painted this work in 1932-33, and he captures the essence of the non-working man perfectly. The palette is somber and he paints all of the men in a similar style; they are everyone and no one, in turn.
The painting is with the Brooklyn Museum and it came up just after I watched a news report on the plight of the homeless in New York, a situation made even more impossible by the coronovirus sweeping the world. The resonance of this painting with the situation that many are finding themselves in right now, not just the ‘regular’ inhabitants of the subways, but people who have lost everything because of Covid-19.
The curator, Margarita Karasoulas, talk about the painting and its relevance to the current situation here:
While Kish explores the dark feel of the Great Depression, he does offer some hope and Margarita explains it here, in the description of the two men in the foreground:
Their faces appear increasingly legible and their bodies are cropped by the edge of the canvas, a pictorial device that suggests their spatial position near the realm of the viewer and encourages us to identify with them, even in that fleeting moment.
What this painting and history itself tells us is that there is a way out of this situation and it can be applied to our current predicament to give us hope that there will be a solution.